Thursday, February 3, 2011

The last leaf

One advantage of “coming out of the closet”, as it were, about my artistic aspirations, is that many indulgent people suddenly materialize bearing materials like paper and canvases, paints and brushes and such like to see me through my doubtless long and arduous quest. In ancient times, I’d probably have popped a few of these items into a satchel and made my living painting in the village square. Now these materials usually line the said closet, and lay for weeks or months while I contemplate them in my mind, imagine myself fiddling with them, imagine textures, shapes and objects, and then…. I put them away for a while in my mind.

Then suddenly the forces create circumstances when something pops and I need to just do something with that particular piece of paper or those paints. Recently circumstances, in terms of an unexpected collision of human body against horizontal concrete, led to some injury to the hands, making it difficult to flex my fingers for a few days and to use the computer for my work. It was easy to turn to the overflowing closet and pick out some very interesting material, paper made from camel dung, given to me a few months ago by my friend Ilse during a visit to Delhi. This post is for her - Thanks Ilse!

Handmade paper has this aura about it which makes you feel that each sheet is extremely precious and can only used for something that is important.  Indeed, I’m very cautious and possessive about my handmade sheets of paper, often using just narrow strips at a time, and even storing the cutting scraps.

While working with the camel dung paper, I kept making mental notes on how it held out with PVA glue, watercolours, acrylic and poster paints, and how it felt when built up into layers, or being molded into tiny forms. Although I usually use a home made paste for papier mache or even for layering handmade paper, I desisted from trying it out at this time as I didn’t want my fingers to get any stiffer in the Delhi winter.  

I found the colour and the grainy appearance of the paper to be very pleasant and neutral to work with, although it may appear a trifle grim and industrial to some eyes. This led me to create the  limited edition Meccano set inspired range of paper objects shown below (but that’s of course just an excuse…I really was just thrilled to be reacquainted with my eyelet-punching gadget). Just three layers of paper (for small objects) were enough to create a texture of leather (thinnish but stiff) and that’s where it creates a great range of possibilities for me. And the PVA glue made the paper harder and…this is the best of all…it shows very little signs of warping with use of this glue at least for the size of objects I made. I have to be careful and qualify the thickness and the size of objects because they make a lot of difference to the “stiffness” of the final product.  In summer, I will check out the effect of papier mache paste which is a pasty flour and water based glue that takes time to harden between layers and needs hot and dry conditions to work well.

I would not use watercolours on this paper, mainly because of the inherent colour of the paper which would dull them further, but would definitely try acrylics. From the little I know of the paper making process, the speckled look and grainy feel would be no doubt due to the fibre content of the dung. For me it is this quality of the paper, the texture, that really has me hooked because it is full of character and takes on different hues.  I feel it would be an interesting material for a paper sculptor for this reason.

The Last Leaf

If you know the story The Last Leaf by O.Henry, you’ll know already that the last leaf that remains on the tree is really the one that’s been painted on. Perhaps this temporary installation perched on my studio table could be interpreted as a grim reminder of the wanton destruction wrought by mankind and what we should do about this. But I don’t want this to get too complicated… this little branch  that I found on the road with its twigs and leaves is really a stage -- among the leaves are two leaves crafted with the camel dung paper.  First one to guess correctly which ones are “painted on” will get a UNIQUE handcrafted pendant  made from the camel dung paper. I trust that you won’t use the computer tools like magnify etc. to play this game, just sticking to the current resolution should be enough.

The Last Leaf  


Here are some pendants and coasters crafted from the camel dung paper, working backwards from finished product to some part of the process. 

Hmm. I wouldn't mind a large cold drink right now especially if the glass is placed on a cheerful coaster made by the resident artist!

A cord running through one of the  Meccano set inspired pendants.

More design options for pendants.

Look at the difference in textures, pendants made from camel dung paper placed on smooth exercise book paper.

A view of the camel dung paper and the plain pendants.

I would shy away from laminating these objects for the simple reason that it detracts from the feel and the idea behind creating this paper in the first place. These are ephemeral in a sense. The next step would be using natural dyes for rubber stamping or painting on them. It’s wonderful to work with paper that is both a canvas and a “substance” that itself can be moulded and worked upon.

It's amazing how my thoughts always return to nature, regardless of the material I use in my explorations.aIf anyone has a moment to spare, try sitting down and "crafting" a leaf. It isn't easy. I could get away because I needed it to "appear" like a leaf for the camera and not bother with too much of the finer details (although I must add that my young son who has keen eyesight couldn't spot one of the fake ones in person). Perhaps more than any installation or paintings or journalistic exposes, a simple exercise like being asked to paint one leaf as realistically as possible might make people think about consumption-destruction-creation in a different light. Anyone game for it?